Monday, January 31, 2011

Book Review: The Power of the Powerless

Ever since I met Raymond Washington at our Salvation Army Corps in Chicago, I have wanted to write about him. As a teenager, the experience of meeting Raymond was comical. We arrived, a new family of officers for the corps there, and all five of us children sat on the front row during our welcome service. At the end of the service, Raymond approached to greet us. He was decked out in his Army uniform, his hair slicked back with grease, his sweaty palm extended. He went down the row, introducing himself and bidding us welcome individually. Almost fifty times in all we heard, "Hello, I'm Raymond. Glad you're here. Hello, I'm Raymond. Glad you're here." Down the row he went, again and again.

I have so many Raymond stories. The times my family would return to our house next door to begin lunch preparations after church and I would stay behind waiting for Raymond to finally finish reading the bulletin board and be ready to head out the door so that I could lock the building. The time Raymond left one of the corps' big brass baritones on a Chicago bus accidentally (sounds like something I'd do these days). The time, after we had already moved away, when my older brother lightheartedly informed me that Raymond provided the special music in the form of an organ solo and played the founder's song, "Oh Boundless Salvation," ... all seven verses.

His story is so sad (his perfect pitch remained despite a severe beating by a gang of thugs outside North Park College many years ago) and yet it is a story ripe with possibilities and lessons and genuine lovely character. That is why I wanted to write about him. I mentioned this to an editor at a Write-to-Publish Conference in Wheaton, Illinois, and that editor told me I should read Christopher de Vinck's The Power of the Powerless. It was that very day, that I came across and purchased Compelled to Write to You (a book of correspondence between Christopher de Vinck and a student, Liz Mosbo VerHage - a North Park student, no less - regarding her experience and reaction to The Power of the Powerless, reviewed here).

This is a powerful book because it tells a story that is strong and true, one that taps into our deep need to open ourselves up to the things in life that perplex and confound us. It is the story of Christopher de Vinck's experience growing up with a brother who would never walk on his own, feed himself, speak clearly or learn anything. The book itself grew from the overwhelming response people communicated to Christopher de Vinck for his article, of the same name, published in The Wall Street Journal back in 1985. So many individuals identified with the lessons learned from the powerless life of Oliver.

As Henri J. M. Nouwen observes in his introduction to this book, "He writes about four very handicapped people, people who suffered from several physical and mental deformations, people who by many are considered ... tragic flaws of nature, people about whom many feel that it would have been better if they had not been born. But for Chris these people are God's messengers, they are the divine instruments of God's healing presence, they are the ones who bring truth to a society full of lies, light into the darkness and life into a death-oriented world. Everything this book reveals seems contrary to common sense. How can a young man who cannot see, walk, talk, feed himself or communicate in any way and who is on his back in his bed until he dies at the age of thirty - how can such a person be the most life-giving presence in the family?"

There is great power in being powerless, in admitting to powerlessness, in serving the powerless, in embracing the powerless. As de Vinck's title conveys, it is a rich dichotomy where the weak things confound the strong and speak volumes without uttering a single word.

I sometimes think to myself, "Why didn't God bless me with a child with Down's Syndrome? I have the heart to love such a child. I can see the blessing their very being would bring. Why did God give me normal, healthy children?"

And yet, I can apply Christopher de Vinck's message to other parts of my life ... other areas of challenge. There are plenty of instances of powerlessness in my life. If I look at these with the eyes of the story of Christopher's brother, Oliver, I can remember that there is a power in powerlessness. The areas where my life seems lacking or more challenging than I would like ... those are blessings akin to an Oliver.

The key is in recognizing the suffering ... the powerlessness ... as blessing. We are so often deceived by the ideals of a life without struggle. We are seduced by the image of a picture perfect life. But reality seems to prove that the very imperfections and trials we may wish to avoid, are the things that reap rich rewards in our lives. Struggle, suffering, dredging up every day the energy to merely go on existing, those are gardens that bring forth deeper meaning than perfection. It is hard work to tend those gardens, but they produce things of rare beauty often watered by tears that cost us dearly. Just as powerless individuals change (stretch and grow) every family where God grants their presence, situations of powerlessness can change an individual.

Although I don't have an Oliver in my life (more's the pity), this book has reminded me to embrace the moments that don't make sense, the struggles that seem too difficult to bear, the health issues that perplex. He has given me the power to embrace my own powerlessness and to thank God for the blessings in whatever form they arrive.

Personally, I was deeply ministered to by the words of Christopher's mother as she explained coming to terms with her role as Oliver's mother. It spoke to the burdens I presently carry. She wrote:

"I could not see the purpose of this trial, but I could say yes to God. I could begin to learn about trust, could begin to realize that God's ways are not our ways.

"For many, many years, I was confined to the house, alone and without the support of relatives or friends. Jose was at work all day and I was with Oliver and the other five children. This enforced seclusion was difficult for me; I had a restless, seeking spirit. Through Oliver, I was held still. I was forced to embrace silence and a solitude where I could 'prepare the way of the Lord.' Sorrow opened my heart, and I 'died.' I underwent this 'death' unaware that it was a trial by fire from which I would rise renewed - more powerfully, more consciously alive.

"I looked into the abyss of human sorrow and saw how dangerous and how easy it is to slide into self-pity - to weep over one's fate. I was given the grace to understand that one has to be on guard against such grieving, for it falsifies one's grasp on life and erodes one's inner strength. Sorrow can be worn as a badge of honor ('See how I suffer!'). It can also be a searing experience. It is not exalting to be alone all day in a house full of small children, to be faced with the same daily chores, with a routine of physical work which appears to narrow one's life to trivial concerns. Many women who are 'just housewives' experience this sense of futility, this feeling of being cut off from the mainstream of life.

"But if there is a silence that is opaque and a solitude that is a prison, there is also a silence that is luminous and a solitude that is blessed terrain where the seeds of prayer can grow."

I needed to read this book, for that very passage alone. I so deeply want to avoid that self-pity trap and to recognize the luminous, blessed terrain, even when the days are long and hard and I feel the isolation will kill me. I want to give up my powerlessness to God, so that He may render it powerful in some way that I cannot see.

Thus, this book isn't merely for people who have an Oliver in their lives. This book is for anyone who wishes to slough off society's persistent drive for usefulness and productivity. It is for the person who wonders what purpose their life holds. It is for the person who rages against unfair treatment for their autistic or disabled child. It is for the individual who can embrace the upside down kingdom where "God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the things which are mighty." (1Cor. 1:27)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Knots Prayer

Lately my life feels like it is totally in knots. I have no idea how to break the stranglehold of discontent and simmering anger towards life. I keep praying for God to break through and change me or help me see clear to change myself.

This may not be the complete answer, but it was a breath of fresh air to my soul today and I feel compelled to share it. I opened the January 22nd copy of The Salvation Army's "War Cry" magazine and discovered this poem:

The Knots Prayer

Dear God:

Please untie the knots that are in my mind,
my heart and my life.
Remove the have nots that I have in my mind.

Erase the will nots, may nots, might nots
that may find a home in my heart.

Release me from the could nots, would nots
and should nots that obstruct my life.

And most of all, dear God,
I ask that you remove from my heart and my life
the "am nots" that I have allowed to hold me back,
especially the thought that I am not good enough.

- Author Known to God

It is my prayer that by passing this along, these words have touched someone else as strongly as they touched me.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Losing Sight of the Person Behind the Problem

On Sunday, I had a BAD day. One of the things that played a role in the demise of my mood was a misplaced credit card. I was cleaning out my purse and handing over the week's receipts to my husband. It became clear that the card was nowhere to be found. I had to mention it to my husband (looking back, I'm thinking I should have waited until I had been searching for more than fifteen minutes).

I dread situations like this. He is extremely careful with his receipts and his money. Indeed, if I so much as leave the change from my pockets on my dresser top, it will disappear. I am not nearly so careful. Often I will drop the change I am given right into my purse, assuming that at the end of the week, I will clean it all out and put everything right again.

So, here I was with a cleaned out purse, and a missing credit card. Once he knew, the pressure was on. I couldn't even remember where I had used it last. He was immediately ready to call the company and cancel the card. I begged for time to search various coat pockets and dresser tops, etc. However, all those searches came to naught. He became more frantic. I became more upset - both upset with my mistake and upset with his reaction.

On the third or fourth scouring of my purse, I found the card. It had slipped into a zippered section of the purse that I rarely use and didn't realize was unzipped. The relief should have made the day better. Instead, I began to stew over the unfairness of his perfection and my irresponsibility.

He came to apologize. I would like to say that I graciously accepted the apology and everything was mended. Alas, my pride was too big for that and I chose to simmer in my own resentment.

Cue this morning.

We have been having some horrible nights lately. Trevor wakes in a panic about three or four times a night and wants ME to come lie with him. Up until last weekend, I was so focused on the problem that I ceased to see the sweet child behind it. It was literally ruining every night's sleep. Thankfully, a blogging friend helped redirect my focus.

Swistle recently posted about a similar nightly battle going on in her household with her five year old daughter. It was comforting to know that this falls in the spectrum of normal parental issues and helpful to read all the comments and suggestions. As a result, I put down an extra comforter and a sleeping bag for Trevor to crawl into on those nights when he needs to be near me.

The first night, it worked famously. He crept in, slid into his spot on the floor next to me and my sleep was uninterrupted. Last night, however, he would not be satisfied until Daddy left to sleep on the couch and gave up his side of our bed. Sean awoke and sensed that his brother had flown the coop, so he came in and slept on the bed roll on the floor. They both have serious colds and major nasal congestion, so I had two snoring, sniffling, grunting boys last night and VERY LITTLE SLEEP.

This morning, I gave up on sleep around 6:30 and (sensing my absence) both little boys rose around 6:45 a.m. Within minutes, Trevor was seated at a tray in front of the television with his breakfast. Alas, he must not have slept very well either. He sat staring at the television for more than half an hour and I became more frantic with each moment, spurring him to hurry with eating, to brush his teeth, to take some cold medicine and get on his shoes, coat, hat, gloves, and backpack.

In the end, the flashing lights of the bus were looming, I was screaming about how watching television causes him to dawdle and miss the bus, and he was in a heap on the floor crying and trying to quickly put on his shoes (which only made him move MORE SLOWLY). In the midst of all this stress, Sean let the dog out of the crate and he was communicating his need to be taken outside to do his duty. Trevor missed the bus!

I took the dog outside and breathed deeply. As the air cleared my head, I saw so very clearly that I had just reacted in the same way that had damaged me on Sunday. I had lost sight of Trevor in the problem of his missing the bus. In fact, I had magnified the problem so much that I couldn't see him behind it.

I came inside and resolved to eat my humble pie. Trevor was already waiting in the cold van. I climbed in the back seat with him and dried his tears.

"I owe you an apology, buddy," I said. "I'm sorry I yelled and got all upset. Missing the bus isn't the end of the world, but I made it look like that and that wasn't fair to you! I'm sorry that I lost my temper. I'm sorry that I hurt you in making the problem look way bigger than it really was."

I'm pretty sure this is a lesson I'll have to revisit a time or two. But for now, I'm really going to work on magnifying the person instead of the problem.

As for Sunday, Swistle had another good post to consider. She and another blogging friend exchanged "Crappy Day Gifts." These are a series of gifts, ranked according to level of difficulty. You save the gifts for an especially bad day, when such a gift can really smooth out the ruffled feathers of life. Swistle, like me, had a really, really bad day and opened one of her "Crappy Day Gifts," to discover a box of See's chocolates. I'm thinking THAT would have gone a long way to make up for the little credit card blunder (and everything else that soured that day). Then again, maybe I need to adjust my perception of what makes a crappy day. I noted that Swistle updated the story with a new post on the crappy day gifts and this crappy day, which she designated as medium made my crappy day look like a good day. Yikes.

Still, I'm wondering if there is anyone out there in cyber-land who might want to exchange crappy day gifts with me? If not, at least remember to magnify the person, not the problem.

P.S. In all fairness, (not, of course, to make myself feel better in any way -hee-hee) my husband is NOT PERFECT. He himself once left a credit card in the slot of an ATM and drove away, not even missing it for a day. That wasn't the end of our world, either!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Never So Vulnerable as Through Our Children

When I was in college, I took a creative writing course. I turned in several pieces that I was quite proud of (including a children's picture book called, "Stories from Poppies Porch Swing," that I sent off a few times and then gave up on ... but my kids know these stories). At that time, I can remember the anxiety I experienced when I would open my returned manuscript and read the grade and feedback of my instructor. Very often, I was devastated.

At the time, I likened it to presenting the professor with one of my children and hearing all the ways they didn't measure up. Of course, at the time, I had not yet had children. Even though it was an appropriate analogy, now that I have children I believe that submitting a manuscript for review can't hold a candle to the experience of observing our children, both how they experience the world and how the world assesses them.

Trevor, my artistic, verbose, sensitive six year old, has recently taken up the sport of wrestling. When the club first started up, his older brother Bryce would often assist the coach at his practices. (Now that Bryce's wrestling season is in full-throttle, he hardly ever assists because he's too busy.) Trevor would beam with pride because that was HIS big brother helping the coach and showing the moves. Indeed, I'm sure that Bryce's wrestling history plays a large part in the enthusiasm and motivation Trevor displays for the sport.

I love watching Trevor practicing the moves and teaching the moves to his younger brother at home. You can tell that he listens closely when the coach is teaching. He wants to be like his older brother. What's more, he wants to best his older brother.

However, accompanying him to the practices is not always as enjoyable. Bryce took to this sport immediately. He was wily and cunning and small and quick. Bryce outwitted opponents that were older and more experienced because he slipped in quickly and got it done.

Trevor is not Bryce, nor do I want him to be. But, even when I can appreciate his differences, I still wish him the same successes. For Trevor, the moves don't come easily. He is bulky and awkward and, despite enormous amounts of enthusiasm, often just doesn't get how to make his body move in the manner they are suggesting.

It sort of reminds me of the time I tried the Taebo tape and could not keep up because I couldn't figure out where my body was supposed to be in space. But, while I can laugh at my own ineptitude, watching Trevor struggle (especially if the rest of his team is closely observing) makes me inwardly cringe. I talk myself down internally with reminders like "You have to crawl before you walk," and "Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration," and the like.

Trevor also looks at my responses, where Bryce never seemed to care. I can't remember a time when Bryce looked back while wrestling to see what I thought of his performance. He was focused on the goal and he wanted what he wanted for himself. During practices, Trevor will struggle with a move or skill and then look back to see my reaction. It is as if he is basing his success or failure not only on his abilities, but also on my responses. (Thus, I have begun taking a book along and trying to stay somewhat engrossed in the pages to avoid those eye connections and the deep need for my approval.)

For some reason, the success or failure of my children hits me in my most vulnerable spot. Tonight, Trevor and I were watching "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," because he had read in another book that this movie included a giant squid battle. In the midst of the battle, I explained that they were trying to sink the harpoon into the squid's small vulnerable spot. I told him a story I had once read about a dragon who had numerous scales and seemed invincible until one individual noticed that deep beneath the many scales was one small spot where no scale protected him (Tolkien, I'm guessing). That, indeed, was his vulnerable spot.

I must admit to having far more than one vulnerable spot. I am a hyper-sensitive wreck, to be sure ... but my children provide an especially tender vulnerability. When they hurt, I hurt ten times on their behalf. When they fail, I feel a failure. When they are unsure of themselves, I die a little death hoping they will not meet with criticism or embarrassment.

The coach believes in Trevor. He sees that Trevor could one day make a fine wrestler, even if he is not necessarily at that point now. Thankfully, unlike the time when Bryce struggled through a short basketball season, clearly recognizing that the other skilled players wished he wasn't on the team, wrestling is an individual sport. Trevor can learn at his own pace and it really doesn't hold anyone else back.

Tonight, my boy revealed his strong kinship to me. He was wounded emotionally while at his wrestling practice. I couldn't even get the details out of him.

Half way through the practice, I sensed that something had shifted in him. I mouthed, "You okay?" and he just shook his head. About ten minutes later, the coach sent them all off to get a drink. I mentioned to the coach that Trevor seemed to be acting weird or not his self (adding as a humorous aside that it isn't unusual for my boys to act weird, but that something seemed to be wrong for him and perhaps he had gotten hurt in some way).

When he returned from the drink, instead of joining the other wrestlers on the mats, he walked directly to me and began taking off his wrestling shoes (even though practice wasn't over). He said, "We're leaving." The coach noticed and reminded me that Trevor had a club shirt coming to him. Trevor didn't even want to stick around to get it (odd, since it has been talked about profusely over the last few weeks). The coach tried to talk to him, but he wouldn't fess up beyond that he wasn't physically hurt, but he was hurt by something his wrestling partner had said or done.

As we drove home, I couldn't get anything further out of him. He is refusing to wrestle at the meet this Sunday (not a big concern since I didn't really think he was ready for it anyway). In the silence (another indicator of major emotional damage, since that boy is NEVER SILENT) on the way home, I felt the sting of that vulnerability all over again.

In my head, I went over possible scenarios. My best guess is that the other boy made a remark about Trevor's size (oh, the vulnerability I feel when I think someone is criticizing my child's size or shape). He IS a bulky boy. At six, he already weighs 70 pounds.

Tonight, I found myself telling him the things my own heart needs to hear.

"Don't worry about what others think of you."

"Do your best, regardless of what the other guy says."

"Don't give up because of someone else's assessment (okay, I didn't use the word assessment when talking to Trevor)."

"Enthusiasm and drive matters far more than ability and experience. Give it your all and let the chips fall where they may."

Somehow these words came out quite easily. Letting them sink into my own heart and mind, on the other hand, especially when my child's awkwardness or inability feels like a repeat of my own awkwardness and inabilities, that is the difficult portion. Maybe his ache will help my ache to grow some tougher skin, too. After all, you can't be a good wrestler/good writer/good homemaker/good parent/good wife (insert your own pursuit) if you collapse at the first sign of criticism.

Monday, January 17, 2011

No Sweeter Sound Than Little Boy Laughter

Let's face it, boys love potty humor. I don't get it, but I sure have experienced it enough to know that it is a fact and I must just accept it.

My boys are no exception to this rule. Indeed, Trevor recently typed in a search for poop games - with no trouble spelling and no side jaunts to mother-of-the-bride-dresses. He ended up revelling in and sharing with his cousins a game, called Poop Machine, where a giant mouth consumes various items and, after travelling the intestines, ends up in a final product in the toilet. My all time favorite was the fruitcake which took forever in the intestines and, next Christmas, finally passed.

Last night, my husband settled in for the evening reading. One of the boys had picked out one of Bryce's old books: The Captain Underpants Extra-Crunchy Book O' Fun by Dav Pilkey. Let me tell you, Mr. Pilkey knows his audience! I mean, what boy wouldn't want to check out a book with the word "underpants" in the title.

By the end of their session, reading a small short story within the book called, "Hairy Potty and the Underwear of Justice," they actually felt a need to call their older brother out of his room to share in the revelry. In the story, a scientist is trying to create a formula for hair growth. When his attempts don't pan out as well as he'd hoped, he dumps the concoction down the toilet, but like every boy - in my house, anyway - he forgot to flush! The toilet grows hair and becomes "Hairy Potty," a gigantic, evil, hairy toilet.

It was the mischief this evil toilet causes which led to numerous requests for repetitious reading and endless little boy laughter. The toilet goes on a rampage zapping signs in the neighborhood. The first sign, which reads "At Bob's Diner, You'll Find That We Pick the Best Ingredients. Your Nose Knows the Diffrense! (sic)" becomes "At Bob's Diner, We Pick Your Nose." Oh, the laughter that erupted in my home.

Their favorite sign damage of all came at the end of the story. Captain Underpants has thrown the evil potty off the top of a building. As it falls it crashes through a sign for "Billy's Bread Co.: My Homemade Buttermilk Bread Smells Great! It's Awfully Good." The sign, now torn in half, reads "My Butt Smells Awful" and Sean begged for Daddy to read it over and over and over again.

This morning, not ten minutes out of bed, it started again, with the boys regaling each other with the exploits of the evil potty. They laughed so hard, I thought they might need to use the potty themselves.

Now, I'm sure there are parents out there who steer their sons away from such degraded humor. They might argue that it doesn't encourage upstanding behavior. But, I just can't bring myself to join their camp. Boys are cut from a different cloth than girls. Boys bond from this shared laughter the way girls often bond in shopping.

One day, when Trevor and I were pondering the imponderables of life, we stumbled upon the question of the ages: Why did God even bother to make our bodies toot and poop and vomit? Couldn't there have been a more sanitized manner of dealing with digestion? I suppose at the time, I ventured some sort of explanation about how even the good things in our life sometimes bring us results which are less than pleasant in their aftermath. I don't really remember what I said in reply. But, now I'm thinking of at least one reason why the potty parts of life may have been included in the grand scheme of things.

After all, they say "laughter is the best medicine." Indeed, even the Bible proclaims this wisdom in Proverbs 17:22 - "A joyful heart is good medicine" and Ecclesiastes 3:4 declares there is "A time to weep, and a time to laugh..."

These moments are beautiful to me, watching my husband and sons bowled over with laughter. Hearing their little voices repeating jokes from a book and laughing all day with delight over some bathroom humor doesn't put me off. Indeed, it fills my heart with joy. They are only boys after all, and boys can't help but find things like butts and toots and smells highly amusing. For me, I just find the boys themselves highly amusing and I'm glad for their laughter. It has, indeed, been good medicine today, even if it originated in the bathroom.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Time to Break

Oftentimes in the parenting role, I have to remind myself that "this too shall pass." The boys go through seasons just like other kids. We are still in the season of finger sucking with Sean (as evidenced by his flu episode this week). We're also still in the season of frequent drink spills (Carnation Instant Breakfast all over the couch this a.m.).

I think what aggravates me more than anything (and also perplexes me greatly) is that we seem stuck in the season of breaking things. I don't remember such a lengthy litany of damage done when we lived in DeKalb and only had Bryce. Perhaps, I have selective memory. Perhaps, I'm just more sensitive to it now. I'm really not sure.

But I am sure that our household breaks more things than the average household! Notice that I am including myself in this mix. Recently, I posted on Facebook my disgust with the little boys and their tendency to break the brand new things they just received for Christmas and birthdays. Little boys, especially, seem prone to damage and destroy things (although Bryce was never as destructive with his things as my two younger ones are).

The day I ranted on Facebook, I had watched Sean pick up a brand new race car (received for his birthday and only opened from the package that very morning) and hurl it against the floor. It was as if he was testing the durability of the thing. Of course, as I let out a shriek and yelled, "WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT TO YOUR BRAND NEW TOY?????," the car broke into three pieces. What really irked me is that the car was specific to this racing ramp (it had a rolling middle mechanism that lined up with a slot - when you lifted the slot, the car rolled down the track and off a ramp).

Many times, they are not even intentionally trying to be destructive. Trevor was scrambling to the end of his bunk bed when one of the slats broke in half. I felt bad for my knee-jerk complaints. I had to apologize and explain that I knew that he didn't do anything more than a boy has to do to get out of the bed ... but we just got the bunk beds in August, for goodness sakes!

Since receiving their birthday and Christmas presents, they have broken a flick tricks bike, a cool micro buggy remote control car (someone must have stepped on it and broke one wheel off), a screaming blow-up punching bag (did we really need any more noise in this house? I guess not!) and a splat ball.

I begin to wonder if we should keep lists of all the presents received and the hour of their demise. It is really that bad!

Not long after posting my frustration with them, I had to admit to a horrible day of damage myself. I poured my boiling hot water into a mug for tea and watched in horror as the counter pooled with water from a crack the heat must have caused.

Later, while putting the Christmas decorations away, I was carrying one of the heavy stocking holders in its box to the storage bin. This was a really heavy one - a metal train car. Somehow, the car slipped from the box and landed with a crash on the new laminate flooring in the dining room.

Now, I have complained about the new laminate flooring. I even began a post at one time to describe how I feel about the switch from carpeting to laminate (the dog hairs show within moments after swiffering). But, still, I don't want to have to have the whole floor redone just because I accidentally dropped a heavy stocking holder on it. Urgh!

So now the floor (new since August) has a deep gouge in one of the wood-like panels. Can't wait to see how much that will cost to repair! I'm wondering if they will have to remove all the pieces to get to it, since our handy man already told me before that each piece interlocks like a big puzzle and you have to remove the pieces and number them so you remember which piece gets returned in order.

The very same day, I pulled Bryce's new jeans from the dryer and discovered that a red sweatshirt in the load and left pinkish smears all over the pant legs. Thankfully, boy that he is, he didn't seem all that bothered and said people really wouldn't notice (bless you, Bryce).

We purchased new bedspreads for the guest room just days before my family came for a visit. The dog, with his disgusting skin infection, oozed blood onto one of the bedspreads. Of course, the dog had created the need for new bedding to begin with, as he had chewed or clawed the woven ones my mother-in-law had on those beds (he also scratched up an antique table we had between the beds).

It feels like we are stuck in an endless cycle of destruction. Things break so often that we finish the day saying, "So, let's see, what was broken today?" We have way too many visits from repairmen. In fact, John wanted the electrician to come check the wiring in the attic above the garage because he worried that the original contractor had not followed the guidelines. As soon as the two men left, we realized that one of the two garage doors no longer worked. Apparently, their walking jostled an already thin connection. Groan. Darn thing had to be replaced, as well.

To look on the bright side, I can easily admit that we have too many things. Our house is jam packed with far more than we need. Thus, our season of destruction is bearing the fruit of mandatory purging. I would just rather we didn't have to purge the brand new Christmas presents.

I will continue to remind myself that one day these boys will be grown and will only return home for food and laundry services. They will, hopefully, outgrow the stage of testing the durability of every item they touch. I will certainly miss their little fingers, toes and faces. I'll miss their funny personalities (ran into Trevor's kindergarten teacher and she told me how excited Trevor was about going to his grandfather's memorial service - she chuckled and said, "I told him, 'so sorry for your LOSS, Trevor!" - I can just imagine his grin and his enthusiasm). What I will not miss is the intense season of breaking things. But, for everything there is a time and a season, I guess.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Looking for Dresses? Really?

This morning, my boys had a two hour delay for school. Since Sean was sick in the middle of the night, it was welcome news to my ears. Hubby headed off to work and the rest of us remained in slumber land for a while longer.

When I finally got up and moving, I remembered that I had scheduled the dog for a grooming appointment (a skin infection near his jowls required the expense of a vet trip AND a grooming to trim up the fur around the jowls). I couldn't really reschedule, since the vet had suggested the immediate trim and besides, grooming usually provides me with a dog free day (something I never turn down).

I left the little boys with Bryce and headed out the door. The snow meant traffic was moving like molasses, so I didn't get back in time to have them take the bus. Upon my return, I drove Trevor and Bryce to their schools.

Once Sean and I were happily back in the living room, I sat down at the computer to check my mail. When the screen came to life, it revealed a search for "Mother of the Bride Dresses."

What? Who, in my house full of men, would have possibly been searching for mother of the bride dresses? Our household will never require such a search. I couldn't help but voice my question aloud.

Sean piped up, "Oh, that was me!"

Say what?????

"How did you search for mother of the bride dresses?" I asked.

"Well, while you were gone I wanted to play motorcycle games. So I typed in M-O-T."

Obviously, the computer offered several suggestions as soon as he typed in the first three letters in motorcycle and he picked the longest one, assuming it would bring up motorcycle games (I would be amazed that the kid knew the first three letters in motorcycle, since he just turned four, but then he has watched me bring up motorcycle games for them on numerous occasions before).

Although, I'm still chuckling over the search he brought up, I'm really glad he wasn't looking for the dictionary! Yikes!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Resolving to Be More of a Character

I'm not big on New Year's resolutions. Probably, because I don't trust myself to follow through on what I resolve. I vaguely remember resolving to make my bed every day last year. I'm sure there were more unmade days than made ones in the final analysis.

I had a friend once who made resolutions at the beginning of February, instead of January. That would be fully in keeping with my personality. After all, I sent out my Christmas cards after Christmas for so many years in a row that one recipient wrote to tell me I could take her off our list since I obviously only send one after receiving theirs (not true, but they clearly didn't know that my track record wasn't personal). This year, that is the one thing I nixed altogether in an effort to simplify and lighten my load. Of course, since I don't want to end up never receiving cards again, I should probably resolve (and pen it in on my calendar on November) to send a card with family photo extra early next year.

To be honest, I do think about resolutions, even if I don't actually make them and hold myself to them. In fact, I was thinking the other night of some characters from books that I've read. I think I would do well to be more like them, even if they are just made up, and can thus be any way the author decides to make them be (gosh, that sounded awfully British - so perhaps you should read that last sentence with a bit of an accent).

For starters, I'm thinking of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. Although it has been literally ages since I've read that book (senior year of HS), I recall that she always determined to think of troubling things ... TOMORROW!

I tend to perseverate. Perhaps, I should say, I am a perseverator! (Doesn't that sound intimidating?) When I worked as an individual assistant in a grade school, I worked with two kindergarten students who were perseverators. They would narrow their focus onto one extreme thought and not let go of it for the life of them. Everyone around them would be cajoling them into moving on to some other task or focus, but they remained fixed.

I perseverate on thoughts of worry and discouragement. In my head, I play the cards out over and over again, always coming up with the same hand and always folding. It is a wretched thing to cling to these thoughts, but just you try and tease me out of them. I stand as purposefully as my autistic counterparts.

Thus, I believe I should resolve to be more like Scarlett in the new year. I should tell myself, in that off-hand way she always used, "I shall think about this ... tomorrow."

I would also like to be more like Harriet M. Welsh, from Harriet the Spy, in the coming year. I would like to be more pro-active about observing things and people around me and writing it all down in a personal journal (blogging sometimes has the tendency to suck all the writing energies, leaving little left for the personal reflections you intend for your eyes alone).

However, it has been an even longer span of time since I read Harriet the Spy. When I checked Wikipedia, to determine Harriet's last name, I discovered that I had forgotten quite a bit of the book. In fact, I would do well to read it all over again. For instance, I forgot that the detailed observations Harriet takes down are eventually discovered by her classmates and end up alienating all of her friends. Hmm ... that's an important detail, no?

Well, then, I resolve to be more like Harriet in my writing endeavors, but to also purchase a locked safe to keep my personal journals tucked away.

I would also like to be more like Jo of Little Women. Indeed, when I first began keeping a journal, way back when I was 10 or 11 years old, I used to sign each entry "Jo." I did this for two reasons. One, my middle name is Jo (ah, there's a little known bit of trivia). But, mostly, it was because I identified so thoroughly with Jo, a tom-boy, bucking the feminine role, with a passion for writing.

I want to be genuine, like Jo. I want to be completely honest about my shortcomings and faults, while still attempting to do my very best to meet the needs of those around me. I want to view my responsibilities with greater reverence. I want to raise my "little men" with more conscious deliberation. If I can manage to capture her tender balance between joyful exuberance (she engages in a pillow fight with her charges) and wisdom (she always lends direction to each child as they face their own difficulties) during the coming year, I will count it a success.

I also want to be more like Pippi Longstocking. No, I'm not planning on sleeping with my feet on the pillow (I think John would move to the couch) or bringing a horse into the house (we already have one and his name is Harley Dog). I resolve to be more self-confident and less consumed with what others think and say. Like Pippi, I want to chart my own course. I want to seize the boldness that allows her to wear her pigtails, her stripey socks (so out of fashion), her men's shoes. My life could stand some of Pippi's fun, as well. Like Pippi, I want to spend this coming year pursuing ADVENTURES.

Finally, I'd like to be more like the little engine in The Little Engine That Could. I want to keep on chugging on the rails God has laid before me, even when the going gets steep and I feel unfit for the task at hand. I want to constantly remind myself that, with His help, I can do it. (Okay, so I'll allow myself to perseverate on those empowering thoughts, but not the disabling thoughts.)

As you can see, I plan to spend this coming year being quite a character! What characters would you like to emulate?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Favorite Reads of 2010

My mother mentioned wanting to write down all of the books I have read for the year. Instead, I am including the complete list here, followed by my indications of which ones were my favorites (FAV). I did remember one, read on Christmas Eve, that I forgot to write a review for. That review will have to come later, but it was a very good book.

Books read in 2010:

Finding Noel by Richard Paul Evans (FAV)
Angling Life by Capt. Dan Keating
The Memory Book by Penelope J Stokes
The Perfect Love Song by Patti Callahan Henry
Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott
The Sacred Romance by Brent Curtis and John Eldredge
Made in the U.S.A. by Billie Letts
The Everafter by Amy Huntley
Heart of the Matter by Emily Giffin
The Pleasing Hour by Lily King
Compelled to Write to You by Christopher de Vinck & Elizabeth M. Mosbo VerHage (FAV)
Flowers in the Rain and Other Stories by Rosamunde Pilcher
To Cut a Long Story Short by Jeffrey Archer
Walking on Water by Madeleine L'Engle
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Stop the Thyroid Madness by Janie A Bowthorpe
The Postmistress by Sarah Blake
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (FAV)
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
Adrenal Fatigue by James L. Wilson, ND, DC, PhD
Cat O' Nine Tales by Jeffrey Archer
The Ask and The Answer by Patrick Ness (FAV)
In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day by Mark Batterson (FAV)
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Better Than My Dreams by Paula Rinehart (FAV)
Over My Dead Body by Kate Klise
Death of a Garage Sale Newbie by Sharon Dunn
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (FAV)
Dying to Meet You by Kate Klise
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw by Jeff Kinney (FAV)
The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo
The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (FAV)
Mercy on These Teenage Chimps by Gary Soto
The Case of Madeleine Smith by Rick Geary
Ruby's Imagine by Kim Antieau
Dear Author: Letters of Hope, ed. by Joan F. Kaywell
Sands of Time by Susan May Warren
Marley and Me by John Grogan
You Were Always Mom's Favorite! by Deborah Tannen
The Purpose of Boys by Michael Gurian

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Book Review: Rush Home Road

I would never have imagined that I would end this book unable to stop thinking about the characters and the story. I really stumbled upon it in the library. I forget what exactly I was looking for, but ended up tucking this under my arm. The first third of the book took me several weeks of occasional moments grabbed for reading. But yesterday, I spent enough of the day glued to the book that even my husband asked, "What's so special about that book that you cannot tear yourself away from it?"

I began skeptical, because the characters presented were despicable and the early events in the life of the small child was almost unbearable to read. I didn't enjoy the introduction. I thought of putting the book aside. However, every time I dashed out the door to take Trevor to his wrestling club practice (he has joined a kid's wrestling practice and loves that his older brother often helps the coach with instruction), that was the book near the door, waiting for another brief installment of reading.

Something certainly happened along the way. I began to love the main characters and really care about what happened to them. I felt as if I could see the worlds they populated. I cared enough to see past the gratuitous sexual encounters detailed in the book (something I have never felt comfortable reading and wish authors could explain in the most limited sense possible).

Lori Lansen's first novel, Rush Home Road, tells the story of a 70 year old African-American woman, Adelaide Shadd, and the five year old girl, Sharla Cody, who ends up in her care. Sharla's white-trash mother, Collette, hopes to find someone to care for the girl for the summer because her newest boyfriend cannot abide the child. Even on the way to Addy Shadd's trailer in Chatham, Ontario, Sharla's belongings are grabbed up by a neighbor girl and she arrives without clothing or the promised money. When Addy takes the girl home to inquire about the money, they discover that the mother and boyfriend have abandoned the child.

As Addy cares for the girl, and transforms her into a lovable child, she begins to relive (sometimes out loud, without realizing it, in the girl's presence) her difficult past. What a long, arduous journey she has travelled. She tells of her youthful love for Chester Monk, her unspoken rape by a family friend, her brother's desire to avenge her wrong, ending in both his and Chester's death and her own exile from home. For the rest of her life, she is taunted by a refrain, "Rush home, Addy, to Rusholme," urging her to return to the town of her birth (a town settled by fugitive slaves in the 1800s).

One of my favorite scenes in the book came as she is seeking some place to live and give birth to her child. After being turned out of a home in a nearby town (they are aware of who she is and cannot let her stay), the woman of the home advises her to travel to her cousin's home in Detroit. She is sure the man will take young Addy in because his wife is close to death and he has two teenage children to cook and care for.

Addy arrives to discover that the wife has just died and the home is full of well-wishers. She enters and plays the part of well-wisher until probed for questions of her connection to the deceased. She spills her whole sordid story, hoping to gain their sympathy. The cousin stands and says, "Adelaide Shadd, I do not believe you .... I do not believe it was cousin Lenny who sent you to us."

She is crestfallen. He continues: "This is what I believe, Young Adelaide. I believe that you are a good child and a grievous wrong has been done unto you. I believe that the Lord sent you to us like a gift, and I would be honored if you lived in my home and allowed me to know the power of the Holy Spirit through you."

The rest of the story continues similarly, with numerous bad turns of fortune in Addy Shadd's life. Some would say too many misfortunes befall this character to be believable, but by the end of the story, I found myself feeling better for having known Addy Shadd and all her misfortune. The steps of her path were winding and sad, but with purpose. Moreover, the power of love and memory work to redeem even the sordid details in the lives of both Addy and Sharla.

I will not soon forget this story or the characters in it. If you can get past the painfully sordid events and the sex scenes in this book, you will glean a nugget of hope and a story of redemption and triumph.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

More to Share

Thanks to my sweet niece, Kirsten, I have more (better) photos to share of our Christmas gathering. Part of me says, "ah, but these are just photos of my family, and who else really cares? (indeed, the ones who really do can already view these and more directly from Kirsten's flicker account)" But another part of me says, "This is part of who you are and one of the reasons you blog is not to gain fame and fortune but to reveal who you are."

So, here is a window into what my world was like earlier this week. As further evidence that something is strangely amiss in my body, I felt as if I missed most of these moments. I'm not sure where I was. I was probably there in body, but largely absent in integrating these moments into my experience. The only ones I really remember are the ones of Bryce performing his drums, Arianna doing her Irish dancing, Trevor showing off his wrestling moves and Trevor clinging to cousin Eric during the whole present exchange.

Still, these photos capture (with far better skill than I will ever have) the feeling of our gathering. Indeed, I feel so deeply blessed as I looked through the photos because such intense joy and comfort with one another is evident. We don't get together nearly often enough. We have our own baggage - that is for sure - but we still are blessed with each other and enjoy gathering together (even if it is only once a year).

Here we all are (minus my parents):

The cousins had a tremendous time sledding together. We were so grateful to have snow when they were all here. We have since gone back to a muddy brown look to our local environs, sadly.

They also enjoyed building with Magnatiles:

Showing off their talents:

Playing cards:

I think my dad is the president and my mom is the vice president in this round. My older brother, David, is SCUM. They all rubbed it in, saying "Thanks for being Scum, David!" (One year, we even made the Scum sit in a little pint-sized chair.)

And just enjoying one another:

Really, we all had a fabulous time. Given the losses on my husband's side of the family this past year, we were especially grateful to gather all of my family together and enjoy one another so thoroughly!